You're a Ray of Hope for Africa, Mr President; for One Writer of Ghanaian Descent, Barack Obama's Visit to West Africa Is Hugely Symbolic for the Continent

Article excerpt

Byline: Kwame Kwei-Armah

WHEN Bill Clinton became the first US President to step on African soil in 1998, he chose the land of my ancestry, the nation many call the Switzerland of West Africa, Ghana. Being the first African nation to gain independence in 1957, it seemed a fitting first stop for the president of the United States, a nation that many believe was built on the backs of imported West Africans.

President Clinton began his opening address to the people of Ghana with the words "Mitsea mu. America fuo kyia mo" (roughly translated as "My greetings to you. Greetings from America.") He continued: "Now you have shown me what akwaaba [welcome] really means."

But if Bill thought he was given a good akwaaba, wait until we see what's in store for President Obama and his wife Michelle when they arrive in the state capital Accra today. As the young people say, it's gonna be off the hook, for no one cannot overestimate the huge enthusiasm the first African-American president returning to his ancestral homeland has created across that country. I'm getting emails and texts from family and friends who say the streets are awash with images of Barack: it is as if he were one of them.

Of course we all know that Barack's father hails from the other side of the continent, Kenya, a country White House officials say is too unstable for the President to visit, but he is going to Africa. And the popularity of Barack Obama throughout the continent is second only to Bob Marley, in my opinion; actually, I think maybe he's pipped him, at least for now.

I was in Ethiopia last year when Obama beat Hillary Clinton to the Democrat nomination to run for President and within a week, three Barack Obama cafes had opened in Addis Ababa. I then flew on to Ghana, where the front page of a popular newspaper carried the headline "The woman who taught Barack to be black", accompanied by a huge celebratory picture of his white mother.

A few months later in Uganda, I jumped out of my vehicle on a dusty high street to take a snap shot of the "Obama butchery" - strap line, "a better kind of meat", next to a huge photo of the man and a leg of beef. It seemed the whole continent had taken Barack's victory personally.

And why not? In this much-maligned continent, the sight of a child of direct African ancestry ascending to the highest position in the world has almost biblical connotations. Africa has many presidents but arriving in Ghana today is the president of all presidents. The welcome, I believe, will match the symbolism.

We are told that after having breakfast with Ghana's new president, John Atta Mills, Barack and Michelle will then fly to visit the monument that many describe as the symbol of the African holocaust, Cape Coast castle, the former headquarters of the British slave trade in West Africa.

Suffice to say, I have never walked out of the slave dungeons that held so many Africans at this huge "temple of pain", nor walked through "the gate of no return", the last point at which the now enslaved would see their homeland, without feeling as if my heart had been broken in several places. …


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